I became interested in a bizarre dog bite incident that happened in area of Tacoma, WA. in 2007. My interest was gleaned given that I have served as Washington dog bite expert on the issue of negligence on several occasions.
I reported this case in an earlier post. Briefly, plaintiff Sue Gorman was viciously attacked and mauled by two pit bulls who entered her bedroom at night. She was sleeping. The pit bulls initially attacked her own dogs and then redirected their attack to Gorman.
Prior to the incident, animal control had received numerous complaints about the dangerous nature of the two pit bulls, but failed to take any action to remove these dogs from the community.
The case went to trial in Tacoma, Washington in July, 2011. Defendants in the case were the owners of the pit bulls and also the entity of Pierce County which oversaw the county’s animal control division.
Verdict of 2.2 million against animal control for negligence
The jury found both Pierce County and the owners of the dogs liable and awarded a total of $2.2 million to the plaintiff.
Pierce County was found 42% at fault, and the dog owners shared the rest of the responsibility minus 1% which was attributed to the fault of the plaintiff for her contributory negligence.
The plaintiff’s contributory negligence arose because she did not close her sliding glass door. Her failure to do this allowed the dogs to enter her bedroom. The plaintiff knew that these dogs had entered her house through the sliding glass door on a previous occasion.
Washington appellate court upholds the verdict
A Washington appellate court upheld the verdict rendered in January, 2014. Subsequently, the defendants appealed to the Washington state Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
Other lawsuits against animal control for dog bite negligence
This lawsuit is similar to other lawsuits where legal action has been taken against animal control authorities and municipalities for their failure to protect public from dog attacks. I previously made a post about one such action which settled for $325,000 in Santa Monica, California in October 2010.
In another dog bite lawsuit, plaintiff Krystal Cooney settled with the Parlier Unified School District of Fresno County, California for $190,000 in August, 2011. Cooney was mauled by a pack of stray dogs which had taken up residence on the property of the school grounds. Employees of the school were aware of the presence of the dogs because these dogs had previously killed livestock on the school grounds. The school district used the livestock (e.g. sheep) for teaching purposes. Cooney was attacked when she was walking past the open field where the dogs lived. Plaintiff’s counsel argued that the school district was liable because of their negligence. This was readily established because they had prior knowledge about the presence of the dangerous dogs on their property.
An animal behavior perspective on negligence by animal control
Municipalities and animal control agencies may be sued for negligence if they do not take adequate steps to protect the public from dangerous dogs. Negligence can arise in a number of ways. Often it stems from the failure of animal control to conduct a dangerous dog hearing given that they had prior knowledge that the dog in question was potentially dangerous. What animal control knows about a dog’s dangerous propensities may be delivered to them in a number of ways such as complaints they receive about the dog, prior dog bite incidences involving the dog in question, or knowledge they have that the dog previously escaped from the property in which it was kept. In other cases animal control agencies may be on the hook if they adopt a dog and the dog subsequently bites a person.
If a dog meets the legal criteria, as specified in a jurisdiction’s municipal code, for being “potentially dangerous”, then in animal control will conduct dangerous dog hearing. If animal control fails to take this step and the dog in question subsequently attacks and injures a person, then the municipality is likely to be sued.
Moreover, If a dog is declared potentially dangerous at a dangerous dog hearing, then animal control will usually impose steps that the owner must take to lessen the danger the dog presents to public safety. Often this takes the form of placing restrictions on the dog (for example, padlocks on the gates), but the restrictions or rulings may be more severe such as revoking the license of the dog.
The appellate court noted the following in the Gorman incident:
“Here, while some of the steps in the process are discretionary, the code did require Pierce County to take action if certain conditions existed. If the county was made aware of a likely potentially dangerous dog, it had a duty to evaluate the dog to determine if it was potentially dangerous. Then, if the dog was declared potentially dangerous, the code mandated that the county take corrective action, seizing and impounding any dog whose owner allowed it to violate the restrictions placed upon it.”
Washington bite expert Richard Polsky, Ph.D. provides expert witness services to attorneys in Washington state. Dr. Polsky has been retained on approximately a dozen occasions and he has been qualified in court in Washington state as a dog bite expert. Dr. Polsky invites inquiries from attorneys interested in retaining him as an expert on canine behavior.